by Linsey Avila (University of Copenhagen)
When COVID-19 hit, no one could have anticipated the chaos that would ensue. Having just started my PhD project only a few months prior to the first wave, it certainly complicated the plans my supervisor and I had originally laid out for the work ahead.
As Bart so eloquently put it ”Doing a PhD is challenging. Doing a PhD in a new country is difficult. Doing a PhD in a new country during a world-wide pandemic is seriously hardcore.” Now, if you throw in automated, technically complex, mechanical instrumentation into your study (in yet another country I might add), another layer of “tricky” forms on the surface. Then, if you add worldwide travel restrictions into the mix, it can feel downright impossible.
While the road ahead has felt treacherous at times, with lots of trial and error and an AMAZING support system, I have been able to take an otherwise insurmountable feat and chip away at its impossibility. Moving through these stages, I was able to uncover a newfound sense of confidence in myself that I never knew existed. Take that, imposter syndrome! #girlpower
Acceptance: Install equipment before going into (another) travel lockdown
As soon as the pandemic hit, travel ceased almost immediately. We were forced to the quick realization that our install would not be taking place in early April, like originally envisioned. This also meant shipping our 700± kilograms worth of equipment would also have to be put on hold. Had we been fortunetellers, I could have simply started my project a few months earlier, and we could have installed in the winter (burrrrr!). But, as they say “Hindsight is always 20-20!” We finally accepted the fact that we were not, in fact, fortunetellers.
The new strategy we adopted was to get everything down to the smallest detail ready, so, as soon as the world opened up again, we could hit the ground running. In preparing to be ready at a moment’s notice, I couldn’t help but think “This must be how special agents feel on any given Tuesday afternoon”. Checking the news daily, I waited in anticipation…
Sure enough, once July rolled around, the world briefly opened up again. With this fleeting window of opportunity, we made our move. We shipped everything out, hopped on the soonest possible flight, and installed our equipment knowing this may very well be our only chance to do so. With immense help from my supervisor, co-supervisor, two onsite technicians, our manufacturer, and many more, all of our diligent preparation come to fruition. We were finally able to install equipment and fire up our measurements just before the next wave of corona hit, and boy, did it feel good!
Paranoia: Set up an onsite laptop, some weather app notifications, and a couple of cameras
Once the equipment was installed, I set out with the hard task of keep it running…remotely…in a global pandemic.
We often joke that once our chambers are installed it is “plug and play”, but in reality, they require quite a lot of maintenance to keep measurements running smoothly day in and day out. Originally designed for flatter micro-elevations, we met another challenge when we had to install these bad boys on a fairly, steep slope. Because of all of the mechanical maintenance and the site-specific challenges we’ve faced, having remote access to an onsite laptop that displays instantaneous measurements has proven to be priceless. With the laptop I have been able to check up on the equipment often, a bit too often some may say, to ensure that the chambers, sensors, and analyzer are operating, as they should.
To capture the robust, seasonal measurements we would like, we also have to keep the system running rain or shine, through frosty conditions, and plan for system shutdowns when a large snowstorm is on the horizon. This has required some weather apps. Two in particular: Veður, the local app with weather station measurements taken from ~17km away, and YR, the Norwegian app with modeled weather conditions for our actual field site. I set both to give me notifications every morning. The first thing that I do before breakfast, before coffee, before getting out of bed, is check the field laptop and these apps from my phone. They have been a big help this winter when it is too dark to get an idea of what the conditions are like on the cameras. In times when the weather is constantly changing throughout the day or there has been snow or frost on and off, I can check them before bed and sleep peacefully knowing our equipment is safe.
Setting up two weatherproof field cameras has been the cherry on top of our corona cake. It’s every nerd’s dream to play with cool gadgets all day, but at least for me, I can justify their use because I am unable to jet off to Iceland whenever I please. If something looks off on the field laptop, I can hop onto the field camera app to roughly assess the situation. Being able to spy on my own equipment has given me serious peace of mind.
Support: Get yourself a kick-@$# technician and a devoted supervisor
It has been dangerously easy to feel stuck at times with the travel blocks, extensive testing, and/or lengthy quarantine periods. While having the ability to check on my measurements has certainly been helpful, if something were to seriously malfunction or break, I would be a sitting duck.
….if it weren’t for Pali, the kick-butt technician, and Klaus, my devoted supervisor. Knowing that my on-call chamber expert, Klaus, is just a zoom, text, email, or call away has been reassuring. He and I can scratch our heads in unison when something is amiss, and then recruit Pali to carry out operation: restoration once we have figured out what may have happened. Klaus has a knack for detail, a wealth of knowledge, and a readiness to help when things go south. With Klaus as a lifeline and Pali as our innovative, resourceful, and eager hands on the job, I need not worry. From remote data transfers, to Houdini air filters, to unexplainable output, to chambers deciding to slide down the hill, to motors breaking down… maintaining this system during a global pandemic would have been very problematic if not for these two awesome human beings.
You know what I said about having a great support system to get you through? Well, it matters. I cannot emphasize this enough. I am so thankful for my regular check-ins with Klaus and my countless FaceTime “fix-it” sessions with Pali. They’ve saved my tail more times than I can count.
If you can get yourself a Klaus and a Pali, do it. Seriously.
Adaptability is a great trait to acquire during a global catastrophe. When possible, arm yourself with all the useful tech hacks you can find. Taking things day by day makes it much easier, and having an amazing support system to keep you going when times get tough certainly doesn’t hurt.